The study of African art began in the first decade of this century. In looking back over more than 70 years of research, it is possible to discern a distinctive set of social science concerns, priorities, and modes of analysis. This social perspective depends not so much on disciplinary affiliation as on the kinds of stands taken on the nature of art and on the relative importance of culture as an explanatory principle in understanding its meaning. This paper is concerned with articulating the main models that have been utilized in social research on African art and with tracing their impact on the development of art studies. This historical account will also point out some of the most serious limitations of these models and will suggest studies which may lead to promising new directions.
The focus of this review, then, will be on tracing the development of conceptual models with a social perspective. Studies with a social perspective include those which deal with the relationships among art, society and culture. These relationships can be conceived in a number of different ways, including, as Baxandall (1985: 89) succinctly suggests, “causality or significance or analogy or participation.” Such relationships are always a two-way street: not only do social practices and beliefs illuminate and affect art, but art also illuminates and affects social practice. Two essays will clarify the specific nature of the social perspective. Both classics in the field, both dealing with aesthetics, they are: “Yoruba Artistic Criticism” by Robert Farris Thompson (1973b) and “Principles of Opposition and Vitality in Fang Aesthetics” by James W. Fernandez (1966).